“God doesn’t want black people and white people to live together.” Pausing to take a breath, the preacher continued, but with less conviction, “The colors on Joseph’s cloak are separate, just as white and colored people should be separate.” He began to lose the thread of his biblical justification for segregation. He appeared disoriented, and when he tried to speak again his words were jumbled. Finally, in his mental anguish he saw the small cross behind the altar appear as a large cross with a black man hanging on it.
This was a dramatic scene in “Backwater,” a play written by two DePauw University seniors in the mid-1950s, when I was a freshman. The play took place in the fictional small northern town of Backwater. It addressed the dilemma of the citizens who welcomed an African American visitor before learning he was planning to move there. Then public attitudes changed, and he was denied employment. The minister in the play was torn between his Christian beliefs and the pressure exerted by the political leaders of the town. The sermon was based on a real one, delivered by a segregationist pastor.
I was a friend of the playwrights, and they asked me to work backstage. Among other things, I made the large cross and raised the curtain that had a small cross on it to reveal the “crucifixion.”
The time was only a year after Brown v. Board of Education, and the ripples that grew into the wave of civil rights awareness and protests were beginning to appear. The play was a reflection of the attitudes in the country and on the DePauw campus in particular. And, sad to say, still persist 60-plus years later.
In his September 17, 2018, essay in TIME, Princeton Professor Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. mentions “the soft bigotry that has, from beneath the surface, enabled American public policy and individual behavior for decades.”
The student body at DePauw was essentially 100 percent white with only a handful of blacks. (The term “Negro” was the word used then.) Probably most white students had matriculated from predominantly white high schools. The black actor in the play was VeeJay. A native of Atlanta, he was the only black in his DePauw class of 400 students. DePauw University is in the rural town of Greencastle, Indiana, about 40 miles due west of Indianapolis. The best barber in town was black and even he wouldn’t cut VeeJay’s hair for fear of losing white customers. VeeJay went to Indianapolis for his haircuts. Eventually there was a barber shop in the Student Union.
Approximately 90 percent of DePauw students lived in all-white fraternity or sorority houses. VeeJay had been advised when he was a freshman not to go through “rush.” Now, as a junior, confident and very self-aware, he said, “If I’d known then what I know now, I’d have gone through ‘rush’ and watched ‘em sweat.”
My favorite among his many anecdotes was about the time he was returning from winning the Indiana Interstate Oratorical Contest with DePauw’s woman orator and their faculty coach. They stopped at a roadside restaurant, and the coach said he’d park the car while the students went in.
As VeeJay told the story (and he had the gift to tell a good story): “So we stepped inside — black man and white woman — and all conversation stopped like a switch had been turned; the cook stopped cooking; the clock stopped ticking; the bacon stopped frying….
“Then our coach appeared and with the addition of a chaperone the situation was re-evaluated. The people resumed talking; the cook continued cooking; the second hand started moving; the bacon was sizzling again.”
My sophomore year I was part of a group of students who traveled to Atlanta during our spring vacation to learn more about the racial problems in the South. We went to understand, not to judge or foment change. The “Freedom Riders” were only a few years later. We stayed in the dorms at Morehouse College, one of the historically black colleges in Atlanta.
VeeJay helped with our obtaining access to the black community. We witnessed a discussion among black leaders on whether they should urge supporting a bond issue to build a library they wouldn’t be allowed to use. I recall one man saying, “We’ll vote for it. We’ll build it.” (pause) “And then we’ll use it.”
As for VeeJay — after graduating from DePauw he earned a law degree at Howard Law School and joined a civil rights law firm in Atlanta. The firm won a discrimination suit against the University of Georgia, and it was national news when Vernon Jordan escorted Charlayne Hunter to the university admissions office in the midst of angry white protesters. He provided leadership to the United Negro College Fund and was president of the National Urban League for 10 years. Vernon was an advisor to Bill Clinton’s transition team and continues to work as a managing director for multiple companies.
The Class of 2018 heard his third DePauw commencement address. (PS: He was never called “VeeJay.”)
An alumnus of DePauw (Class of 1959) with Ph.D. in physics from Brown, Jock McFarlane moved to Princeton in 1966 to work at RCA Laboratories. This article was for a memoir class at the Stonebridge at Montgomery senior living community.